TRAVERSE CITY — In the days after March 8, Lexi Witkop, 20, bought herself a clear vinyl shower curtain.
She found it at a local department store, and it wasn’t even a standard shower curtain.
It was more like a liner. Made for use with a traditional fabric shower curtain. One patterned with flowers, or birds or a bold abstract design.
But Witkop can’t use that kind anymore.
“I need to keep a clear line of sight,” she said during a recent interview.
Even at home, she added. Or, more to the point, especially at home.
On Friday March 8, just after 7 a.m., Witkop was asleep in her apartment when she woke up, face down on her bed, with a man lying on top of her, pinning her down and raping her.
“Your home is where you run to when you’re scared,” Witkop said. “Where are you supposed to run when your home isn’t safe anymore?”
Traditionally, the details of sexual violence receive little media attention, unless a celebrity, a sports star, a politician or a “dangerous stranger” is involved.
Such depictions of perpetrators offer a distorted view of the reality of rape, according to the Journal of Criminology and Criminal Justice.
Federal Bureau of Investigation data shows most rapes happen in private settings like homes or workplaces, and are committed by someone known to the victim.
The Traverse City Record-Eagle’s policy on reporting rape does not preclude publication of a victim’s name, but also does not require it. Witkop agreed to share her story after consultation with staff at the Women’s Resource Center.
“In the beginning, it was about getting justice for me,” Witkop said, about pressing charges and going public with her story. “It’s not just about that anymore. It’s about showing someone else going through this, ‘Well, if she can do it, I can do it.’”
The evening before she was attacked, Witkop had a margarita at a local restaurant, took Xanax and methamphetamine. She later spent time with a co-worker and a new friend from out of town who was staying with her.
When Witkop went to bed at 2:30 a.m., her friend, her co-worker, and another man, a friend of her house guest named Brendan Kelly, were socializing together in Witkop’s living room.
Witkop said she felt afraid and “blank” when she woke up and realized what was happening. She grabbed her phone, got dressed and drove to Serra, the car dealership on Garfield Ave. where she worked as an appointment scheduler.
“I didn’t call the police. I don’t know the police. I know the people I work with, and work was my second safe space.”
Witkop remembers crying as she told her manager what had just happened. His response was to immediately drive her to Munson’s emergency room.
She got scared she’d get in trouble for having drugs in her system, so she left the hospital. Then returned a few hours later.
A Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner spent several hours with Witkop, giving her a head-to-toe exam, an HIV test, preventative treatment for other sexually transmitted diseases and completing the Michigan State Police’s 10-page sexual assault evidence collection kit.
“We’re thorough,” SANE nurse Sandy Minor said. “We want this person to relive this experience once. And we want them fresh from the scene.”
There were 7,690 rapes reported in Michigan in 2018, according to the FBI. There are only 78 SANE-certified nurses in the state. Four work at Munson; two more are undergoing training.
“Unfortunately, we’re rare,” Minor said.
The training is extensive — 40 hours of classroom time plus 72 hours working with the public — and the emotional intensity of the job burns out as many as 70 percent, according to the Journal of Forensic Nursing.
One lesson? A “blank” or “stunned” reaction to rape is common.
Munson participates in “mandatory reporting,” meaning staff is required to report all sexual assaults to police. Minor said she talks with her patient and uses her discretion on whether to include a victim’s identifying information.
“If it’s a public safety issue, and I think there’s a person out there who needs to be off the streets, and my patient can provide that information to police, I’ll give the name,” she said.
Sometime during the five-plus hours it took to complete Witkop’s exam, Kristie Boettcher, director of advocacy for the Women’s Resource Center, got a phone call.
It was the kind of call she says she receives as often as 15 times a month.
Boettcher has made a career of providing support to survivors of rape and sexual assault and is a repository of alarming statistics:
One in 71 men, and one in five women, are raped in their lifetime. (Centers for Disease Control)
More than 60 percent of rape survivors were assaulted by an intimate partner, a relative, a friend or an acquaintance. (Bureau of Justice Statistics)
Nearly 80 percent of female rape victims were younger than 25, and 42 percent were younger than 18 when the assault occurred. (U.S. Dept. of Justice)
Of every 1,000 sexual assaults, fewer than five perpetrators are arrested, tried, convicted and incarcerated. (Rape, Abuse, Incest National Network)
“One of the worst statistics isn’t a statistic at all,” Boettcher said. “It’s that they still have people who don’t believe this happened to them. Even with a conviction.
“They have people who say they did it for attention or for money. That’s a good one. I’ve been working in nonprofits for 15 years and I have yet to see any rape money.”
Counselors and nurses in northern Michigan who advocate for survivors of rape were universal in their neutrality concerning prosecution.
Neither Minor, nor Boettcher, nor Juliette Schultz, executive director of the Women’s Resource Center, said they encourage a survivor to press charges.
Nor do they discourage it.
“I’m hopeful we’re on the cusp of real change, of women coming forward and of perpetrators being held accountable,” Boettcher said. “But that is a decision for the survivor and only the survivor.
“When I’m asked, ‘What do you think I should do?’ I say it isn’t my decision. I say I’m not the one who has to live with the consequences.”
When Boettcher asked Witkop whether she wanted to press charges, Witkop said that she did. And never once wavered from that decision, say those who worked on the case.
Grand Traverse County Sheriff’s Deputy Mike Makowski responded to the ER and made the initial incident report; Detective Jason Polzein collected evidence and photographed Witkop’s apartment; the case’s lead investigator was Detective Nathan Ritter.
“I give him (Det. Ritter) and the investigation an A-plus,” Witkop said. “He actually cared. He believed me. He was a huge part in making me feel safe. He checked in with me, he updated me on the case, he never left me wondering what was happening.”
Brendan Joseph Kelly, 22, was arrested April 17 and found guilty Sept. 12 on two counts of third-degree criminal sexual conduct, after a two-day jury trial. Both counts are 15-year felonies.
Ritter referred questions about the investigation to Grand Traverse County Prosecutor Noelle Moeggenberg.
“I told Lexi that I believed her, she knew that Nate (Ritter) believed her, and I talked to her about what the process was going to be like, as rough as that is,” Moeggenberg said.
“I wanted her to be prepared. I wanted her to know that people would be watching her on social media. That a private detective might be calling her friends and her family. And she was just completely open and honest.”
Moeggenberg gave credit for the conviction to the team that worked on the case. Det. Ritter’s interviewing skills, Boettcher’s ability to convey that rape is never the fault of the victim, the coordinating done by Victim’s Advocate Niki Dunwiddie, and to Witkop herself for her determination.
“It’s scary,” Witkop said, about the three hours she spent on the stand testifying, and being cross examined by Kelly’s attorney, Dena Horvath.
Horvath declined comment on behalf of herself and her client.
“She came at me hard,” Witkop said. “But my whole thing was, this all comes down to me and how I react. I stood up for myself. I fought for myself. And that feels powerful.”
Following the verdict, Kelly’s bond was canceled and he was remanded to the Grand Traverse County jail. Sentencing by Circuit Court Judge Kevin Elsenheimer is scheduled for Oct. 18 at 9:15 a.m.
Boettcher said it is not standard for staff from the Women’s Resource Center to make a statement to the court, but because sentencing guidelines for rape direct the judge to consider whether the victim required counseling, Boettcher said she will be submitting a statement.
Witkop, who is moving to Florida after sentencing, said she has already written her victim’s impact statement and plans to read it aloud.
“I’m so young still. I know I have endless opportunities and I don’t want to limit myself. I’m looking forward to going to the beach, to looking out at the water, at the waves, at that big horizon.”